Why studying abroad makes sense: Scientists share their story
Perspectives on Emigrating for Academic Career Advancement
St. Augustine said, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page". People always ask me why I have moved to different countries so many times. Besides being a (nerdy) lover of neuroscience, I am also a keen traveler.
As an enthusiastic learner, constantly eager to acquire new skills, I like new challenges, exploring different cultures, and seeing the world from a different perspective. When I finished my Bachelor’s degree in Poland, I had already been on a few international internships and decided to continue my Master’s thesis in Holland. I then moved to Spain for my PhD. Despite all of the initial hardship and challenges, I knew that I had made the right decision. Later on, it was more a case of choosing the best step to take next for my career. I had a hard time leaving my PhD lab (and Barcelona of course), but at the same time I wanted a new challenge. I am glad I had the opportunity to work in world-class laboratories with state-of-the-art equipment and brilliant scientists. I had exposure to different ways of thinking, experimental approaches and techniques, and opportunities to build my professional network.
Doing a PhD is difficult to begin with, but doing one in a foreign country has its own obstacles as well as rewards. To describe what it’s like to do a PhD abroad, I also asked a few friends and colleagues some of the most crucial questions about what their experiences were like from beginning to end.
Navigating the visa situation
Since I only traveled around the EU for academic engagements, I never really had to worry about visas, which is one of the benefits of being a part of the EU. On the other hand, I had never opted to live outside the EU, probably because the potential issues that could arise (or simply the additional effort required) when securing a foreign work visa were always at the back of my mind. In my case, I think this aspect helped me favor staying in Europe.
Choosing a PhD supervisor
There are definitely many important things to consider when choosing a supervisor. Obviously, the quality of the academic’s scientific work, publications, grants, and whether or not their subject area suits you are crucial; but for me, the most important aspects are more personal. I consider the individual’s scientific integrity, manner of personal contact, and genuine character to be most important.
The best thing you can do before accepting a new position is to visit a potential laboratory in person, talk to people there, and then make up your mind. However, if a visit isn’t possible, then virtually getting to know a potential supervisor and their current research team is the next best thing.
Looking for funding and fellowships
Looking for funding? My impression is that this process is becoming more and more difficult, possibly due to the number of different schemes available, a decreasing emphasis on EU funding, changing criteria for assessing grants, and a decline in short-term grants to support the work of early career researchers (PhD students and postdocs) while staying in their host labs.
Nonetheless, I have always been a big fan of Marie Curie funding programs (https://ec.europa.eu/research/mariecurieactions/). If you’re looking for a PhD, then www.findaphd.com may be helpful. There is also nothing wrong with approaching Principal Investigators directly.
Altogether, though, it’s a mixture of hard work and a bit of luck. For example, Catherine wasn’t actually looking for a PhD program when she found it! She was looking for a health research-related job abroad in the UK. Her goal was to end up working for someone who would become her mentor and could help her figure out: a) how to get onto a PhD program, and b) how to fund it. She said:
“I’m the first person in my family to even attend university, so a PhD was on another level of mystery from my perspective. Luckily, by chance, I applied for a fixed-term research assistantship and found out (while interviewing for it) that the opportunity came with the option of completing the work as a PhD project. It’s particularly difficult to secure an entry-level job in Europe if you’re not an EU citizen (and I had been receiving a lot of rejections up until that point), so when I got the offer I quickly accepted and decided to register as a PhD student. It was an opportunity that sort of ‘landed in my lap,’ and I wasn’t going to give it away.”
Last but not least: what was most helpful after leaving your home country?
For me, the biggest challenge was the beginning – arriving in a new country, a new city, the need to speak English (or another language) all the time, and getting to know others were probably the hardest. However, not everyone has the same challenges depending on where they are moving.
“Personally, the transition from the US to the UK was relatively easy given that I didn’t have the most obvious of barriers: learning and living in a foreign language. This made it fairly easy to navigate my new home and strike up conversations with the people around me in case I needed help or advice. My colleagues and lab mates were probably the best resource while I adjusted to life abroad. Plus, the University of Manchester has a student society for EVERYTHING, which meant I found so many different creative and community outlets around me.”
Interestingly, not all aspects of transitioning to a new culture are as obvious as the language and food, for example. Other obstacles may be subtler, such as the process of getting used to a completely new teaching and learning dynamic. For example, PhD students in the US are often treated as “students” first and “researchers” later.
In the EU, PhD work starts more abruptly than most of us expect, especially since we are required to carry out our project in a completely new and sometimes unfamiliar subject area right away. In fact, many supervisors expect the PhD student to identify what they need to learn, locate or request the necessary resources, allocate their own time to independent study/learning, and seek their help/guidance/expertise only when absolutely needed. In this sense, supervisors are “researchers” first and “teachers” when necessary. I would say that I was treated as an independent researcher right from the beginning as well, and that took some getting used to, but it pays off in the end – because “nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” – Marie Skłodowska-Curie
Posted by Dr. Karolina Szczesna PhD, Neuroscientist; Senior Product Manager and Technical Support at Proteintech Ltd.